High on the sunlit uplands of the French Alps, amid juniper bushes and marmot burrows, a scattered flock of sheep graze peacefully on the last of the summer pasture under their shepherd's watchful eye.
Little do they know that lurking nearby is a pack of wolves. Nor that those wolves have propelled them into the center of an impassioned debate about whether man can ever live with his age-old enemy, canis lupus, in this wild and spectacular corner of Europe.
Philosophical reflection about man's place in nature is not foremost among Frederic Bues's priorities, though. A local sheep breeder, he lost 57 of his ewes last year to wolves, he says. As far as he is concerned, "sheep breeding and wolves are incompatible. The only solution is to eradicate the wolves."
That would be illegal, though, under wildlife protection laws. All the more so since many of the wolves - and many of the sheep - live in natural parks. "If you want the beauty of the park, you have to take the beast with it," says Jean-Yves Astruc, director of the Queyras Regional Park.
Which leaves the shepherds with a challenge. "The wolf has arrived, and we have to try to see if we can make do," says Olivier Bel, president of the local shepherds' association. "We just want to reduce the number of casualties as far as possible, and go on working at a job we love."
Wolves had been extinct in France for more than half a century until 1992, when a pair was sighted in the southern Alps. Apparently the two had crossed the border from Italy, where hundreds of European wolves roam down in the distant Abruzzi mountains.
Just as in the United States, where deliberate wolf reintroduction programs have sparked controversy, "park rangers were delighted to see the wolf arrive; sheep breeders saw it as a catastrophe," recalls Pierre Braque, author of a government report on the wolf's return.
Today, some 50 wolves are believed to prowl the French Alps, and the shepherds' fears have been realized: Wolves are blamed for more than 1,000 sheep deaths last year, mauling them or panicking them into cliff-edge stampedes. This year's figures are expected to be worse.
Few of the sheep that make the Alps an open-air larder for a wolf live in the region year round. Most of them come up from the lowlands of the south of France in the spring, in a centuries-old migratory tradition known as la transhumance, to spend five months on mountain pastures.
With lamb prices low and conditions difficult, French sheep breeders survive only thanks to European Union subsidies. Even with that aid, life is touch-and-go for those with smaller flocks of a few hundred animals. Their patience is running thin.
"We've got enough difficulties as it is," complains Mr. Bues, who took over his father's flock four years ago. "These wolves are the last straw. If I'd known they were around, I wouldn't have gone into this business."
Something has to be done, insists Mr. Braque, a senior Agriculture Ministry official, "or we'll end up with the Italian situation, where the wolves are officially protected, but they get shot anyway."
Already, some farmers are taking matters into their own hands. The skinned body of a wolf was left at the entrance to the Mercantour National Park in the southern Alps this summer, and rumors abound of shepherds leaving poisoned sheep carcasses on mountainsides where wolves are known to hunt.
"For us there is only one solution," says Serge Jousselme, an official with the local young farmers' association. "It is to put the wolves in a park. We can talk about its size, but they have to be shut in and managed."
For naturalists, that is unthinkable.
"To put a wolf in an enclosed space makes the species meaningless," argues Michel Blanchet, chief scientist at the Queyras park. "You wouldn't be keeping wolves, you'd be keeping just a memory of wolves."
One thing is clear: The only way to protect the wolves is to protect the sheep, and a growing number of breeders are beginning to use grants from the EU - which is keen to promote wildlife diversity - to keep the wolves at bay.
Top of the list when it comes to protective measures is the pastou, the Great Pyrenean mountain dog, a shambling and gentle-looking bundle of white fur that will nonetheless stand up to a wolf or any other predator (see story below).
The EU's "Life" program has also funded the purchase of hundreds of rolls of electrified wire fencing, so that flocks can be corralled at night, rather than just sleeping wild on the mountainside, as they used to do. New cabins are being built in the more remote pastures, enabling shepherds to sleep closer to their sheep at night, and old ones - spartan to say the least - are being made more comfortable.
Money has been spent on ways to make a shepherd's life easier, such as two-way radios for keeping in touch with families, and on increased salaries for young shepherds to do the extra work that the threat of wolves demands.
Shepherds are also coming up with their own ideas. Several are using bird scarers - gas-powered machines that make a loud bang every few minutes - to frighten off wolves at night. One rigs up a set of speakers around his corral and hooks them up to a tape recorder that plays intermittently through the night.
This does not add up to the peaceful idyll of sheepherding myth. When wolves are around, a shepherd gets no rest, putting in 100 hours a week on alert guarding as many as 2,500 animals. "That puts impossible pressure on you," says shepherd Didier Castelle.
Still, the combination of protective dogs, and mobile corrals, and more regular human presence seems to pay off. Among the 20 flocks who summered this year in the Queyras park, "There wasn't a single attack on a flock inside the wire, with a dog and a shepherd nearby," exults park director Astruc.
Shepherds themselves are less convinced. Roger Minard's flock suffered six wolf attacks last year, but hasn't had any while using dogs, corrals, and a sound machine. Still, Mr. Minard says there is no such thing as 100-percent protection. "It depends on the mountain, it depends on the weather, it depends on the shepherd," he says. "And one day, the wolves are going to get used to my noisemaker." Then, he worries, "we will have to choose between an ecology of the wolf, which leaves no room for us, or an ecology of transhumance."
Other shepherds are more optimistic and believe that the bigger problem is to persuade the government and the EU to come up with enough money for the protective measures that are needed. "One good thing," Mr. Castelle says with a grin as he leans on his shepherd's stick, "is that the wolf has arrived with his pockets stuffed with euro cash."
'Society must help pay'
"The wolf costs a lot," acknowledges Mr. Bel, the shepherds' association president. "And it must not be just the shepherd and the sheep breeder who pay the price. If society wants wolves, then society will have to pay for them."
In Queyras park, Astruc has ambitious, if expensive, plans to maintain at least a sporadic human presence during the winter in areas likely to be colonized by wolves in an attempt to keep them away from pastures. He has hired two wardens to tramp the mountainsides on showshoes and skis, is sending forestry workers out on patrol, and is even trying to persuade the French Army to use the Queyras for airborne winter combat exercises.
It all seems rather complicated for an attempt to keep things natural. But as angry farmers start reaching for their guns, "the fact is that the wolves are here," says Castelle. "It would be more enriching for all of us to find subtle solutions, instead of simply killing them."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society